Violet Against Women: Confronting Notions of the Feminine, curated by Ellina Kevorkian, Loyola Marymount University, October 29, 2010
Violet Against Women was an evening of video and performance curated by the ubiquitous Ellina Kevorkian as part of the programming for the 2010 Bellarmine Forum. I have to say that Kevorkian did a great job with this event, from the nicely designed, typo-free programs that were passed out to all audience members; to the excellent selection of strong works by strong women artists; to the much-welcomed presentation of video art works in an auditorium setting with good picture and sound quality.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my particular jubilation over that last point. Who among us hasn’t felt frustrated and annoyed when trying to view video works in totally distracting, inaudible settings? I had already seen Mary Reid Kelley’s work in two different venues (Susanne Vielmetter in Culver City and the current SITE Santa Fe biennial), but had to rely on printed scripts to decipher her amazing barrage of clever and funny plays on words. Here in the civilized confines of LMU’s Murphy Recital Hall, we had the rare treat of sitting back in our seats and actually focusing on seven fully audible videos from beginning to end, interspersed with three performances that also made good use of the auditorium setting.
Angela Ellsworth kicked things off with a site-specific version of Another Woman’s Movement, a performance from her Sister-Wives series, which deploys clusters of female performers dressed as members of the more extreme LDS polygamist sects. As we entered the auditorium (which happened at a set time and in an orderly fashion), six sister-wives were lined up on the landing overlooking the audience, their faces expressionless. Presently, they paired up and did what looked like some type of traditional nineteenth-century couples dance, which took them all twirling down the steps to the stage. Once there, they continued dancing for a while, then lined up, one couple behind the other. Each couple took out a long piece of string, then separated to the length of it, with each person taking an end of string in her mouth. A garbled version of You Light Up My Life, sung by Ellsworth, cued up on the sound system as each woman proceeded to eat her string. They kept eating until each couple came together and kissed. Then they spat out their strings and did another dance, a more exuberant two-step, before exiting the stage.
To me, this performance skated that very thin line that sits right between embarrassingly cheesy and compellingly earnest. Moments of laughter aside, it was a little difficult to watch—the costumes looked starched and fake, and the symbolic language was simple and broad-stroked. Ellsworth is obviously searching for a way to combine, juxtapose, blend, duke out the various aspects of her history—she is an out lesbian, an artist, and she grew up Mormon. Such a history poses all kinds of interesting questions and conundrums. But in this performance and in Compounded, a version of which was performed two weeks ago, the known facts are sketched out and then tied up in only a rudimentary fashion; it feels like she is taking some paper cutout LDS dolls and making them kiss each other and re-enact performance art pieces. It’s amusing, for sure, but it feels like there has to be more.
Right after Ellsworth’s performance was over, the lights were dimmed for the first five videos. These were all pretty consistent in theme, revolving around women’s identities and social roles and making strong use of costumes, which function as both constraint and release. In addition to Kelley’s much discussed Sadie, the Saddest Sadist, the works included Marnie Weber’s The Campfire Song (the usual Weberian groove fest with little girls, animal characters, and trippy music), Elana Mann’s Ass on the Street (a woman wearing a giant costume ass’ head teeters down the street and gets harassed—this looked like it was shot guerrilla style, with real passers-by making jokes); Angela Marzullo’s Performing #2 (after Marina Abramović) (a hilarious re-enactment of Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful by an eight-year-old girl, complete with toy unicorn in the background), and a chestnut from 1979, Nancy Buchanan’s These Creatures (in which a disembodied male voice wonders about the strange behavior of women).
During the intermission, Micol Hebron presented Chasing Tale, in which she was assisted by two live chickens. While she fed and petted the chickens, Hebron related tales that illustrated the art world’s pecking order. Martha Rosler once shot Hebron an email complaining that her announcements were “art spam.” Chris Burden refused to introduce his students to colleagues, because then they’d be his competition. Nancy Rubins once punched Hebron in the face for an artwork that she perceived as insensitive to animals. A fellow student was notorious for gaining success by doing studio visits in short skirts with no underwear, and playing dumb on panel discussions. Like the rock’n’roll groupie who had to have her stomach pumped because it was full of semen, these all sounded like the sort of art world stories that get made up and passed on because they sound like a plausible version of the truth; the performance was thus a funny meditation on the silly nature of gossip.
[FOOTNOTE: It turns out that my original instinct, which I wound up doubting on the silly basis of logic, was correct. Micol has informed me that all the stories she told were, in fact, true. Chris Burden, are you really that much of a tired cliché? Nancy Rubins, that’s called assault. In the art world, I need to remember that there is no need to make anything up because the truth is more than ridiculous enough. The same probably goes for those semen-filled groupies. Oh well.]
After Hebron’s performance, two more videos were screened. Shana Moulton’s Whispering Pines #9 was a strange story of hope and identity as constituted via Antiques Roadshow. Heather Cassils’ Crash and Burn was a uniquely absorbing look at Hollywood special effects—how they are made out of nothing to become climactic moments in some unknown tragedy. Crash started out with people falling through a thick cloud of smoke, screaming along the way; this immediately recalled the horrors of 9/11, but was then revealed to be a series of staged stunts. Burn documented various stunt persons being set on fire, filmed as they flail about, and then collapsing when they get too hot, as a team of people descend on them with fire retardant. Since Cassils is known for work that deals explicitly with gender, this was an interesting choice of work for this evening.
The final performance came from Juliana Snapper and Jeanine Oleson, who presented What?, a series of absurd and nonsensical sketches employing elements of theater, opera, and sculpture. First, they placed a long pipe between them, which inflated and deflated a balloon in the middle while they hummed/whistled the famous flower duet (aka the lesbian duet for two women) from Delibes’ Lakmé. Three more equally strange pieces followed, the strangest and funniest of which was a performance of the 911 tape from the woman whose chimpanzee went nuts and attacked her visiting friend. Snapper performed the chimpanzee owner in full soprano voice, while Oleson offered a more down-home, Gretchen Wilson-ish rendition of the 911 officer’s rote, repetitive questioning. I have no idea what to make of these performances, but damn they were fantastic.